KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The focus, of course, will be on the Nebraska players as they take on Florida at 9 p.m. Eastern Saturday in the title match of the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship.
But that guy prowling sidelines, the one with the long hair kneeling on the court, yelling instructions and encouragement?
That’s Tyler Hildebrand, a first-year assistant. A man consumed with watching video of volleyball on all levels, and no small part of the Huskers’ success this season.
He came from the men’s game, a former pro setter and assistant coach at Long Beach State who is held in the highest regard by so many in the volleyball world.
This season with Nebraska was the first time he’s coached women.
“I know I’m in the minority on this, but I don’t see it as gender,” Hildebrand said. “I see it as biomechanics, physics, neuro-pathology, motor learning. These are the things that are influencing whether we’re making change, getting better, performing or not.”
UCLA men’s coach John Speraw, also the USA men’s Olympic coach, had nothing but high praise for Hildebrand.
“He spent a lot of time in our gym and I just felt that he was one of the most thoughtful, creative, insightful coaches that I’ve worked with,” Speraw said.
Hildebrand, just 33, was a star player at Long Beach State and was a men’s assistant when he was hired last spring by Nebraska’s John Cook.
“I was hoping he would work with us on the national team, but Cook hired him away,” Speraw said. “And I think that’s the right move for him. I think he’s absolutely head-coach material down the road and I know how impactful he was at Long Beach and the great job they’ve done there. I know how highly Alan (Knipe, Long Beach head coach) thinks of him.
“He’s made an immediate impact at Nebraska and he’s got a really bright future. And honestly, I hope to continue collaborating with him, because I think he’s a thinker and when you surround yourself with people like Tyler good things happen.”
That’s what Cook was thinking when he lost both of his assistants last year, Dani Busboom Kelly to become the head coach at Louisville and Chris Tamas to do the same at Illinois. Cook said he tried to hire Hildebrand three years ago.
“I called Tyler again, and I think they were in a better position to kind of go to the next part of their life. Tyler made the decision to go in the women’s game from the men’s game…and wanted to start a family.”
Indeed, Kristin Hildebrand — a former national-team player herself — gave birth to their son, four weeks ago.
“Something I didn’t know in all this,” Cook said, “Tyler was in Omaha in 2006, and apparently, he told Kris, ‘Someday I’m going to coach at Nebraska,’ because he was so impressed with the final four there and the crowd.”
Cook said he needed a guy like Hildebrand. He not only hired him, but also former Husker and Olympic libero Kayla Banwarth. Banwarth, who had worked with the Pepperdine men after the Olympics, was becoming a full-time assistant for the first time, while Hildebrand was going to coach women for the first time.
“He makes me a better coach. I wanted to be pushed and challenged and see things differently. When he came in on his interview we were in our beach season. I just said, ‘Hey, Tyler, here’s the team, run a practice, I’m going to watch.’
“At the end of that practice I knew this guy’s going to make me better.”
None of that is lost on the Nebraska players, particularly senior outside Annika Albrecht.
“Tyler is really enthusiastic. He is really positive all the time and he brings a lot of energy into the gym,” Albrecht said. “He’s just really knowledgeable about the sport. He brought in a lot from the men’s side. He brought in a lot from the beach. I think he just helped us bring in different things to Nebraska volleyball.
“I think Coach already had a lot of things and all the former coaches had already set a really good, strong platform, and he just helped build it up with a bunch of different ways. For example, he’s helped me out a lot with my shots. I know people know just opening up different shots that maybe we’re not used to in the women’s sport yet, but on the men’s side it is a little bit more common. So that’s just one example of how he’s helped me personally.”
Interestingly, Hildebrand doesn’t look at it the same way.
After Nebraska beat Penn State in the national semifinals Friday, Hildebrand pointed out the biggest differences in the men’s and women’s game.
“In terms of support from the administration, in terms of fan support, being nationally televised, you know I’ve been to three final fours and the Olympics in 18 months and I got more texts last night than the other two final fours and the Olympics combined,” Hildebrand said. “It was on ESPN. Just the recognition of the work you’re putting in is more reciprocal over here. To me, those are the differences, but coaching women and men, there’s no difference.”
“It’s about human beings, how the brain works, how the body works,” Hildebrand said. “You should know certain things about each gender, how they’re going to handle things. But you should know things about introverts and extroverts. Or learners or people who are more feelers.”
Nonetheless, senior setter Kelly Hunter really appreciated having the men’s view of things.
“He brings in a lot from the men’s game. Before the season the only film we were watching was all international, mostly men’s,” Hunter said. “Just seeing the techniques, it’s a lot different than anything I’ve learned my entire life, and anything most girls do learn. So, yeah, we basically didn’t change my technique, but added some new things here and there, some little tweaks. He’s just always on video, and like Anni said, he knows the sport better than anyone I’ve ever seen. So he’s just helped to kind of show us new things that we didn’t know before.”
Cook has been pleased that Hunter has gotten even better under Hildebrand.
“I let him train Kelly. I still train Kelly some, but I let him add to what she’s doing. She’s had me for four years, and I thought, OK, he’s one of the greatest setters ever. There’s got to be something he can give her, and I think she’s made her a better setter,” Cook said.
“She talked about it, using the ground. I’ve never talked about that before, and posture, and things like that. So just a new way of looking at things. I think he’s a great young coach.”
Hildebrand, 6-foot-5, had a 35-inch vertical before his knees — he’s had eight surgeries — just couldn’t keep pace. Along the way, he’s played or coached with some of the best.
Here’s a quick rundown of his athletic career, that included being a standout basketball player in high school in Mesa, Arizona, where his coach, Greg Sessions, kicked him off the team his senior year.
“I was captain and club volleyball was conflicting and the club schedule changed,” HIldebrand recalled. He told his coach club had to take priority because that was his future and ticket to college. Sessions said he had to go.
“Everybody hammered on him, but I supported him. I was captain of this team and I was gonna bail on them? I made a personal choice, not a team choice, and I’ve actually connected with him and told him, ‘Hey, I’m a coach now and you taught me a great lesson.’ ”
Hildebrand, who also played volleyball, baseball and golf in high school, went on to star in men’s volleyball at Long Beach State from 2003-06, where he was coached by Alan Knipe, later the 2012 USA men’s Olympic coach. He got beach coaching from Greg Vernovich, who coached Dain Blanton and Eric Fonoimoana en route to their 2000 Olympic beach gold medal.
He graduated with a degree in psychology. From there Hildbrand spent two years on the AVP Tour, spurning an offer from USA men’s coach Hugh McCutcheon that likely would have led to a spot on the indoors national team in 2008.
“I look at it as a mistake, but I was a little tired of indoors and my knees were banged up,” Hildebrand said.
And then he went back indoors and not only joined the USA program, but played professionally in Puerto Rico, Romania and Israel before coming back to Long Beach State. Three of those knee surgeries in 18 months convinced him it was time.
At Long Beach, he worked for Knipe and at the same time directed and coached boys club. Later he worked with Speraw, serving as a setting consultant and then in the 2016 Olympics in Rio, was the coach for Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson.
And things were going well at Long Beach State.
So Cook had to convince Hildebrand to make the move to Lincoln. He hired him last spring and let him finish the Long Beach State men’s season.
“It means a lot to me to that I was able to fulfill the role that Coach needed,” Hildebrand said. “Coach, I know, was reeling a little bit, losing two assistants in two months. I could feel it, that he was worried.
“He knew he had to make a big hire, as he said in his words, and I’m happy I filled that role for him and I’m happy I did for the girls. These girls are special and it’s a special team.”